Hillary Clinton’s impassioned defense of a no-fly zone in Syria last Wednesday may not have won her many friends in certain wings of the Democratic Party, but it spoke to at least one group: America’s foreign policy elite.
Over the past year, U.S. foreign policy “thought leaders” have increasingly turned their backs on the Obama administration’s cryptic strategy in the Middle East. Reporting in The Washington Post, Greg Jaffe identifies several major players crucial to laying the groundwork for such a pivot, including fellows from the Center for American Progress, Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, and the Atlantic Council. All, Jaffe notes, are “driven by a broad-based backlash against a president who has repeatedly stressed the dangers of overreach and the need for restraint, especially in the Middle East.” Like Clinton, one immediate policy prescription they’ve identified is the establishment of safe zones—enforced, naturally, by U.S.-led no-fly zones—in Syria. And also like Clinton, one of the questions they’ve been wont to ignore is how a resurgent Russia would receive such a strategy.
Although the Russia problem has acquired new import in the past few weeks, it’s been a consideration pro-airstrike advocates have grappled with for months. Earlier this year, one of the more vocal supporters of an intervention—the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—sponsored a series on “safe zones,” grappling somewhat haphazardly with the question of Russian involvement. In one report, James Jeffrey wondered “why Washington, with far greater local and global military capabilities [than Moscow], so worries” about a no-fly zone resulting in a military confrontation with Russia. Plus, explained Anna Borshchevskaya in another policy paper in the series, “the threat of escalation with Russia exists whether the United States implements safe zones or not, simply by virtue of Russia’s growing presence in the region.”
The Atlantic Council—which is expected to forcefully call for a more interventionist foreign policy in its forthcoming report on the next president’s role in the Middle East—took a similar position in its report on the Middle East earlier this year as well, noting that concerns over Russian retaliation were overblown. “American interests and capabilities greatly outweigh Russia’s in the region,” the report explained. “It is Russia that should want to avoid a fight with the United States in Syria, and probably will.”
The Blob Supports Intervention
Several months later, these calls for U.S. action have only grown louder.
Toward the end of September, Charles Lister, a fellow at the Middle East Institute, laid out a multipart plan for creating viable safe zones that has since made the rounds among the foreign policy commentariat. Lister assures us that his plan—which zeros in on U.S. and international action in the first 30 days—doesn’t extend to regime change and instead “seeks civilian protection with discernible consequences for violators.” “Violators” here could include both Russian and Syrian forces, demonstrating our willingness to use punitive force. Lister makes several assumptions. Russia, he asserts, would cede to a “superior military actor” and the country’s domestic turmoil would keep it from dumping more resources into counter-escalating. Most importantly, “to militarily counter limited punitive measures against non-critical regime military infrastructure resulting from especially flagrant violations of a ceasefire would seem to contradict Russia’s own calculated intervention in Syria.” Even if these assumptions become immutable facts, the door to a dangerous escalation of conflict between the two superpowers remains wide open.
Lister’s particular brand of interventionism has captured the attention of Brookings as well. In cooperation with John R. Allen—co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence—he put forth yet another call for intervention in the pages of The Washington Post. The bug seems to have spread around. Some of Allen’s more even-handed colleagues, such as Shadi Hamid, have taken to arguing that Obama’s inaction has left us off worse than before, with Syria one of the consequences.
Even the Center for American Progress (CAP), an ostensibly left-of-center think tank with strong ties to the Clinton campaign, has thrown its hat into the ring. In a recently released report entitled “Leveraging U.S. Power in the Middle East,” one of the many first-order policy prescriptions CAP makes for the next administration is: “Be prepared to use airpower to protect U.S. partners and civilians in certain parts of Syria.” These activities could go on for some time. CAP estimates that its plan would put Syria on track to achieve political stability by 2025. Just as in previous examples, CAP notes that Russia is another one of the major powers vying for primacy in the Middle East, but it makes no attempt to demonstrate how Moscow would receive a no-fly zone.
It’s tempting to assume these oversights wouldn’t make their way into any substantive policy put forth the next administration. Yet these lapses, shared by experts across partisan lines, raise the question: Is the “Blob” gearing up for war with Russia, or is it simply not taking the country’s threats seriously?
From Cold War to Hot?
War between the two powers has, oddly enough, become a point of idle speculation. The phrase “nuclear war” has been batted around in both Russian and American circles—including the media—a few too many times for comfort, even among thinkers more level-headed than Russian television personality Dmitry Kiselyov and Donald Trump. At Brookings, General Sir Richard Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently presented his own scenario for armed conflictbetween the West and Russia.
Despite experts’ insistence that Russia would either roll over and let the United States do its work—or, worse, could be taken out by U.S. forces in a few days—there’s still the issue that a no-fly zone would, as U.S. officials have stated, “require us to go to war against Syria and Russia.” Russian officials appear to agree. “Any missile or air strikes on the territory controlled by the Syrian government will create a clear threat to Russian servicemen,” Russian Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov warned. Policymakers, he continued, should engage in a “thorough calculation of the possible consequences of such plans.”
Why the Blob shrugs off these threats—let alone over a year of military support for Assad—as bluffs is perplexing. Russia’s struggling economy has done little to weaken its resolve. Did the commentariat forget about eastern Ukraine?
U.S. military and intelligence officials tend to agree. “I do take seriously the very sophisticated air-defense system and air-defense coverage that the Russians have,” James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, explained during a Council on Foreign Relations event on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t put it past them to shoot down an American aircraft . . . if they felt that was threatening to their forces on the ground.”
For the foreign policy elite, U.S. action in Syria isn’t as much a matter of “if”—it’s a matter of “when.” And at this juncture, with U.S.-Russia relations in the toilet and a bevy of action plans that fail to account for the ever-increasing risk of direct conflict, the wonks’ preferred humanitarian intervention is shaping up to be a disaster.
Hannah Gais is a New York-based writer with recent bylines in Al Jazeera America, First Things, U.S. News and World Report and more. She is an audience development associate at The Baffler, a nonresident fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and the executive director of The Eastern Project. Formerly, she was the assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association.